America’s sensitive wilderness refuges are currently in jeopardy. About 40 percent of the land along the southern border is managed by the federal government, but a major conflict between agencies leaves the land largely unprotected. Three presidential administrations have attempted and failed to resolve this conflict and safeguard the environment. President Trump could do it all with just one policy: a border wall.
For as much focus as the border receives, it hosts one of the least discussed policy issues in modern history. The problem begins with shared jurisdiction between land management agencies and border security personnel. Under the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, a number of agencies oversee several million acres of protected land around the border. Even though Border Patrol has authority to monitor a 100-mile zone along the entire border, it cannot enter federally protected land without special permission.
This causes delays and restrictions to routine patrols and infrastructure maintenance. These conflicts are detrimental to both environmental and national security. When Border Patrol lacks access, aliens trample over highly sensitive wilderness refuges. Not only does this devastate ecosystems with pollution and erosion, but criminal aliens can evade detection by simply going where the Border Patrol cannot.
Despite a 2006 inter-department Memorandum of Understanding, numerous Government Accountabiltiy Office, and Congressional Research Service, the government has been ineffective in resolving this conflict and protecting the land.
Subject to restrictions and constraints from the Wilderness Act, Antiquities Act, National Historic Preservation Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and Endangered Species Act, Border Patrol is virtually hogtied. For example, under the Wilderness Act, Border Patrol cannot operate motor vehicles, build permanent or temporary roads, or deploy strategic infrastructure.
Federal employees, of course, observe environmental restrictions, to the detriment of their own goals. Only laws and unmanned gates protect environmental areas. But criminals do not heed laws. Border Patrol indirectly guards land by patrolling for violators. A million new environmental laws would not stop a single smuggler from doing his worst to the environment. These laws only hamstring security personnel, and when Border Patrol is hindered, it cannot effectively patrol, leaving the environment vulnerable to violators who proceeded unchallenged.
To truly resolve this conflict, Congress would need to exempt Border Patrol from half a dozen laws or change its environmental protection scheme. The wall is a backdoor solution to diminish the need for Border Patrol to access sensitive areas.
A serious barrier would not only deter new waves of migrants and caravans, but would prevent the worst penetrations of the border: large groups and vehicles.
With no barrier, gangs, smugglers, and traffickers, can easily enter the country, threatening the environment and public safety. While Border Patrol cannot drive in wilderness areas, smugglers do what they want. Off-road vehicles wear paths in the ground that disrupt soil, vegetation, and wildlife, worsening erosion and altering the state of the refuge. Vehicles also mean higher volumes of people, contraband, and pollution. As a security threat, greater loads of weapons or drugs can be imported in a vehicle. As an environmental threat, more people means more ecological devastation. In 2016 alone, the Bureau of Land Management recorded hundreds of tons of waste and pollution, along with threats to wildlife.
A wall means no vehicles can decimate the vulnerable environmental sanctuaries inside our borders. A wall means fewer unlawful children, families, smugglers, and traffickers littering, polluting, and roaming through wildlife refuges. A wall means less pressure on Border Patrol to enter delicate areas.
Under current law, Border Patrol cannot effectively patrol to keep violators out and keep the wilderness safe. A wall reduces the impact of both illegal and lawful presence on the environment by keeping out migrants and the authorities who would pursue them. While the media is distracted with sanctuary cities, a wall allows us to protect our often ignored environmental sanctuaries.
Benjamin R. Dierker is a J.D. candidate at George Mason University.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.